Monday, March 30, 2015

"Congratulations: It's a Baby Girl…Maybe"

          An article about a presentation made in my neighbouring province of Alberta some time ago made me wonder if I didn’t live in the Twilight Zone rather than Canada.   Twelve years ago, a baby girl was born in Alberta by the name of Wren Kaufman.  Soon after her birth, the customary birth certificate was issued, containing the information that she was “F”, a female.  She later said that she found it stressful being a girl, and wanted to be a boy, and objected to her birth certificate identifying her as a girl.  Alberta law since the 1970s only permitted such reissued and altered birth certificates if the person requesting it had undergone sex reassignment surgery, which Kaufman had not.  Kaufman filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission, protesting that such a law violated her constitutional rights as a transgendered person.  The court agreed, and a new birth certificate was duly issued.  It was presented to the now Mr. Kaufman during a Pride festival brunch hosted by the city’s mayor by the province’s culture minister Heather Klimchuk.  The new certificate identifies Kaufman as an “M” instead of an “F”.  All is now well in Kaufman’s world.
            Like I said:  the Twilight Zone.  Whatever one thinks of the transgender issue, a birth certificate is an historical document, containing pieces of historical information.  It does not contain information about the child’s eye colour or weight, nor about the religion of the mother.  It does not specify the mother’s political affiliation, nor her sexual orientation.  The evidence contained in the little document confines itself to four indisputable facts:  the new-born child’s given name, the city in which the child was born, the date of the birth, and the gender.  The first piece of information depends upon the decision of the parent; the second and third pieces of information depend on noting the calendar and remembering which city you are in, and the fourth depends upon simple observation; it is not a matter of ideology, just of knowing where to look.  Except in cases of physical deformity or of the medical condition known as hermaphroditism, this is pretty straight forward.
            One can, of course, later decide that anatomy notwithstanding, one would prefer to be the other gender.  But that decision does not alter the facts of history.  I can decide that I would have preferred to have been born in Vancouver rather than Toronto, and I can move from Toronto to Vancouver, but the geographical move does not alter the historical fact that I was born in Toronto.  In this sense the birth certificate is like other legal documents, such as the marriage certificate.  After marrying, one can decide that it was a mistake, and get a divorce.  That would alter one’s marital status, but it would not re-write history.  It would not obliterate the record of the marriage as if it never happened, nor could the divorced man afterward identify himself as “bachelor/ never married”.  The now-single man would then have two legal documents:  one affirming the historical fact of his marriage, and another affirming the historical fact of his divorce.  Historical realities are stubborn things, and that is why historical papers documenting them are meant to be inalterable.  Most people acknowledge this, and think that re-writing history is a bad idea.
            That is the problem with reissuing birth certificates—it is an attempt to rewrite history.  A birth certificate should only be reissued if the information on the original was incorrect, and that was not the case in Kaufman’s case.  For the record that baby Kaufman was “F” and not “M” was simply a documentation of what the nurses saw when they looked at the customary place on the baby—a record of anatomy, not a statement about the baby’s soul, nor a decree about the baby’s future.  That is why transgendered people are called transgendered—the “trans” in the word indicates a change from one gender to the other, and the birth certificate simply documents one’s gender at birth.  The Kaufman case represents the triumph of transgender ideology over historical common sense.  It also witnesses to the power of the gay lobby in Canada.
            What does all this legal hoopla mean for us Christians?  It means that the frontline in the culture war has shifted yet again, and not in favour of us traditional Christians.  Before now, most of the debate centered on gay marriage—whether one could call the union of two persons of the same gender “marriage” or not.  Now the debate centers on the more basic question of what we mean by “gender” in the first place.  It also provides us with interesting questions.  For example, if (the now) Mr. Kaufman marries a woman, is this an example of gay marriage or not?  Mr. Kaufman’s anatomy presumably is still female; would his marriage to another person with female anatomy be a traditional non-gay marriage?  Other questions arise too:  what if Mr. Kaufman decides in the future that, on balance, he is now a woman again—does Ms. Klimchuk reissue yet another birth certificate documenting the fact that Kaufman was born a female after all at yet another Gay Pride luncheon? 
            The basic issue of course is the relationship of anatomy to gender.  Up until now in human history throughout the world, there was considered to be a one-to-one correspondence between the two, which is why gender could be determined by a simple glance by the nurses attending a birth.  Apart from cases of hermaphroditism, a person’s anatomy gave its inalterable verdict.  Feelings that its verdict was incorrect were labelled as “gender dysphoria” (discontent with one’s biological sex), and were regarded as a problem to overcome.  Such feelings may properly elicit sympathy and compassion, but they should not lead one to regard gender as having nothing to do with anatomy, nor to regard one’s gender as so fluid as to be ultimately determined one’s subjective feelings.  The issue is more complex than the province of Alberta’s culture minister thinks it is. 
            Deciding that gender is ultimately a subjective matter, and scrapping the concept of “gender dysphoria” in favour of a new concept of being “gender creative” does not always lead to happy outcomes.  Consider the case of Nancy Verhelst of Belgium.  She had sex reassignment surgery to become Nathan Verhelst and underwent hormone therapy.  After undergoing a radical mastectomy and an operation to construct a penis, he was not happy.  He said, “I was ready to celebrate my new birth.  But when I looked in the mirror, I was disgusted with myself.  My new breasts did not match my expectations, and my new penis had symptoms of rejection.  I do not want to be a monster”.  It was a heart-rending situation, with an even more heart-rending outcome.  Nathan at length decided to die by State-sanctioned lethal injection and was indeed killed at the hands of Dr. Distelmans, a cancer specialist.  One can have sympathy for Kaufman and others suffering from gender dysphoria, but the example of Nancy Verhelst reveals that anatomy is not so easily overridden, and that gender should not be determined ultimately by subjective feelings.
            So, what’s the final word for us traditional Christians?  Obviously we must have compassion and must show love for all people, male or female, straight or gay or transgendered.  But as we articulate and transmit our Christian culture to our young and to our catechumens, we must take care to include a traditional understanding of gender.  We believers have always been counter-cultural, and at odds with the secular world to a greater or lesser degree.  Here is one more way in which we differ from the secular world around us.  Our catechetical teaching must include this difference.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Passing of Father Tom

Today I joined the sad multitude of those mourning the passing of the Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, theologian, writer, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, known to the many who loved him simply as “Father Tom”.   Tributes will come pouring in soon enough, describing him in loving detail and outlining his many works and his lasting legacy.  He takes his honoured place beside his illustrious predecessors at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Frs. Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff.   With no intended disrespect to the deans who both preceded these men and came after them, when I think of those three I can only mutter in a kind of grateful awe the words of Genesis:  “There were giants in the land in those days”.  Many people knew Father Tom better than I did (alas, I never went to St. Vlad’s; though our parish did have him as a speaker one year, and some of our men took him on a fishing trip; see photo).  Accordingly I willingly leave to other hands the happy duty of describing his excellence.  Here I will only offer a few reflections of what Father Tom’s life tells us.  If we could reduce the years of that inspired preacher to a sermon, it might tell us three things.
            First, Christians must be courageous.  It is always tempting to temper the truth, to look full into the faces of those who disapprove of our Gospel and to falter, speaking only the words which our hearers will like.  It is always tempting to tailor our Gospel for the times and to proclaim only those parts of the Faith which are currently fashionable.  Father Tom taught us to have none of that.  He taught us to speak the truth in season and out of season.  Like St. Paul, he did not shrink from declaring anything that was profitable, but declared the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:20, 27).  Not surprisingly one of his many books was entitled, Speaking the Truth in Love.  The days to come will be at least as challenging for Christians as the days past.   Father Tom teaches us to have courage and to speak the truth in difficult times.
            Secondly, Christians must use their minds.  It is of course no sin to be simple (the Church canonized Paul the Simple, the disciple of St. Anthony), but if we have good minds, we must use them in our service of the Gospel.  As controversies rage, it is easy to take sides and to simply react thoughtlessly, over-simplifying complex issues and scoring cheap debating points.  When we feel strongly about an issue our heated blood bids us speak (sometimes loudly), without first listening to the other side and weighing the arguments and counter-arguments.  Fr. Tom teaches us to listen, and reflect, and to speak in measured sentences.  He taught us that it is possible to combine fervent intensity with balanced nuance.  Just the other day I heard of a priest who gave Fr. Tom’s book Christian Faith and Same-sex Attraction to a gay man who was investigating the Orthodox Faith.  The man said that it was the first time he read an irenic and balanced book on the subject, one which didn’t make him feel judged.  Father Tom was able to navigate with nuance, and pick a safe way even through such a minefield.  Father Tom knew how to use his mind.
            Finally, Christians must make the Lord Jesus Christ their message.  It is easy in a church with such a rich historical heritage as the Orthodox Church to focus on other things, and to make icons our message. Or the Apostolic Tradition.  Or fasting, or the calendar, or the Typikon.  In short, it is easy make Orthodoxy our message, and so to inadvertently preach ourselves.  Father Tom knew that we preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves simply as your servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Corinthians 4:5).  His focus was ever on Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.  And those looking at Father Tom saw someone who was a servant, for Jesus’ sake.
            Sadly, the servant has gone, and we all are the poorer for his passing.  But as Father Tom would instantly and emphatically remind us, Jesus Christ remains.  As we feed upon Father Tom’s large and lasting legacy and rely upon his heavenly intercession, let us learn from the sermon that was his life.  The time to join him in the Kingdom will come to each of us soon enough.  Until then, let us follow in his footsteps, and live for the Lord.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Heaven and Hell in the Scriptures

The Anglican bishop and theologian N.T. Wright was once interviewed on the Evangelical Protestant show “100 Huntley Street”, speaking about heaven and hell.  As might be expected from someone of Wright’s stature, he was articulate, fascinating, and Biblical.   He prefaced his brief remarks by saying that one day he was sitting in the Sistine Chapel facing an immense image of the Last Judgment, in which souls were departing after the Judgment and either ascending to heaven or descending to hell.   Bishop Wright was sitting next to a Greek Orthodox archimandrite, who commented to him that he could not understand that image, because although that was how the Christian West understood mankind’s ultimate fate, it was not how the Christian East understood it.  We therefore may ask the question, how are we to understand heaven and hell?  What happens after the Last Judgement?
            The first thing is to disentangle the two questions and realize that they deal with two different things.  After we die, the souls of all are taken from this world.  Those who have served Christ in His Church with faith, zeal, and devotion, are taken by the angels to be with Him.  This is the meaning of Christ’s prayer to the Father that those whom the Father has given Him (namely us devout Christians) may be with Him where He is to behold His glory (John 17:24).  Since Christ now sits in heaven at the right hand of God, that means that after Christians die they also are taken to heaven be with Christ, for that is where He is.  That is why St. Paul says that his greatest desire was to “depart and be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23), and that to be “absent from the body” (i.e. to be dead) was to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).  Heaven is not so much a reward for our goodness, a kind of celestial Disneyland, as simply the place where Christ reigns in glory.  Christians ascend to heaven at death not as their reward, but because Christ wants us to be with Him and heaven is where He is.  Heaven is thus not about bliss or sitting on clouds or playing harps or even reunion with loved ones.  It is about Jesus. 
            What about those who were not devout Christians when they died?  There is no evidence in the Scriptures that everyone who was not a confessing Christian in life will be lost, or packed off immediately to hell for final damnation.  All who were not devout Christians in life wait for the final judgment, and the nether-world where all wait for this final judgment is called “Sheol” in the Hebrew, and (a little misleadingly for us English speakers) “Hades” in Greek.  (Even more misleadingly, it was called “Hel” in Old English, from the earlier Anglo-saxon.)  Many ancient cultures acknowledged that the human spirit somehow survived death, though it was reduced to a shadowy quasi-existence.  These cultures conceived of this existence as an underworld, the place of where all the dead dwelt (Isaiah 14:9-11, Ezek. 32:17-32), a land of gloom and darkness (Job 10:21-22), a shadowy existence far from the light of the life where living men experienced God’s rescue and praised Him for His deliverance (Pss. 6:5, 118:17, 86:13, 27:13).  Both the righteous and the unrighteous dwelt there.  In a later and more developed understanding of the underworld, the righteous found Sheol to be a place of rest, whereas the unrighteous found it a place of distress.  For example, in The Book of Enoch (chapter 22) we read that “the souls of the dead assemble therein”, and in this Sheol the “spirits of the righteous” find rest by “the bright spring of water”, whereas “sinners” are “set apart in great pain”.  This understanding of Sheol is presupposed in the Lord’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19f.  But no one in Sheol has yet undergone the final judgment.  That comes later, when all stand before Christ’s throne and the books are opened and they are judged according to their deeds.
The teaching of New Testament is that everyone will be judged on the basis of their deeds, their hearts, and the quality of their lives.  Thus Christ teaches that those who did good deeds in life arise to a resurrection of life, while those who did evil deeds arise to a resurrection of judgment (John 5:29).  St. Paul echoes this, saying that all will stand before the judgement seat of Christ to be recompensed for their deeds, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5:10).  He also says that everyone, even the pagans who never knew the Law but who still sought for glory, honour, and immortality by their perseverance in doing good, will be rewarded with eternal life, because although they did not have the Law, they showed by their fidelity to conscience that the work of the Law was written in their hearts (Romans 2:6-15).  In the Book of Revelation, we read that everyone will stand before the divine throne at the last judgment and books will be opened, including the Book of Life, containing the names of those who served God through their deeds.  All will be judged according to their deeds.  Those whose names were written in the Book of Life will be spared final condemnation, and will inherit eternal life (Rev. 20:12-15), but there is no suggestion that only the names of Christians were inscribed in the Book of Life.  If that were so, what would be the point of the other books which detailed the deeds of all?
            And what happens then, after the final judgment?  What is the ultimate fate of mankind?  Modern secularism, when it answers this question at all, assumes that all will be saved, and all dogs go to heaven.  (Although, as Homer Simpson opined in an episode of The Simpsons, maybe Hitler’s dog didn’t make it.  Poor Blondi.)  In this rosy vision, pretty much everyone finally makes it, and in the rock and roll heaven proclaimed in song by the Righteous Brothers, not only is Bobby Darin there along with Jim Croce and Otis Redding, but even Janis Joplin, despite her heavy drinking, drug use, and early death by heroin overdose.  Like I said:  all dogs go to heaven, regardless of their deeds.  But this is not the vision of the New Testament, nor of Orthodoxy.
            In our vision, after the last judgment, heaven and earth are joined as one, and the new Jerusalem descends to earth, adorned like a bride adorned for her husband, as God at last comes to dwell among men (Rev. 21:1-3).  In this new heaven and new earth, righteousness finally finds a home (2 Peter 3:13).  The whole cosmos will be lit up with God’s presence, and all on earth will be filled with joy.  All whose names were written in the Book of Life will inherit this joy, and the nations at long last will walk by the light (Rev. 21:24).  Led by Christ, all that live will bow the knee with joy before God, and He will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).
            But not all will delight to bow the knee.  Sadly, some will resist to the very end, and perversely choose the misery that comes from insisting on their own way over surrender to God’s love.  In Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, Satan preferred to reign in hell than to serve heaven, and some will prefer damnation to surrender.  It is absurd, and it is unreasonable, and it staggers belief, but it will be so.  Some will refuse to repent, even at the cost of entry into the city of joy.  By their own insistence, they will remain outside the city, wrapped in their pride, clinging to their sins (Rev. 22:15).  Their lot is Gehenna, the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death (Rev. 21:8).
            The whole universe is hurtling to Christ and to the light which fills all with joy.  In that Kingdom of light, as Julian of Norwich once said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  Every single corner of the cosmos will be filled with God’s presence.  But what of those who refuse the light and with triumphant obstinacy refuse to surrender to it?  Since the whole world will be filled with light, they will be pushed outside of it, to the borders, to the dark fringes where existence shades off into near non-existence.  Their own swollen will, victorious to the end, will bind them hand and foot, and they will remain in the outer darkness, outside the cosmos of light, away from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power (Mt. 8:12, 2 Thess. 1:9).  The lake of fire, the flame which burns but gives no light, and which was never meant for men but only for the devil and his angels (Mt. 25:41), was not built by God as a holding cell to punish men.  But it is the only realm left for men who refuse to dwell in joyful penitence in the world God made.  What other fate is left for them?  If the whole universe is filled with God and they refuse to live with Him, where else can they go?  All that is left for them is to remain in their self-chosen misery, at the intersection of God’s wrath against sin and their own refusal of His love.  In that place there is only weeping, and the gnashing of teeth.
            Since Christ first entered the world through His incarnation, the universe has been in the process of separating and splitting apart.  Since the Cross and Resurrection, it has been coming apart at the seams, as light separates from darkness, righteousness from sin, penitence from pride.  At the last judgment, that separation will be complete, and all men will forever abide in what their deeds and hearts have chosen.  Either we will inherit the earth along with the meek, or we will be forced out of the world.  The choice is entirely ours, and we make it every day of our lives.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Lenten Cuisine

            The first question which presents itself during the Lenten season is one of cuisine:  “What on earth can I eat since the Church forbids eating meat, fish, and dairy?”  It is a reasonable question, but must not be allowed to skew one’s understanding of what Lenten fasting is all about or give the impression that Lent is primarily about food.
            For one thing, the Church does not have any food laws in the same way that Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism have food laws.  Religions often have food laws, but Christianity is not a religion.  Rather it is our participation in this age of the powers of the age to come, and as such it transcends religion with all its categories, including the category of unclean food.  Religions have such a category, and both Judaism and Islam forbid the eating of pork.  Hinduism (at least as practised by some) famously forbids eating cows, and some of its literature declares that no one who eats meat can have any knowledge of God.  These are true food laws, and no one can obtain a dispensation from them to eat pork any more than they could obtain a dispensation from the law of gravity.  They are not “food guidelines”, but “food laws”.  Unclean food remains unclean, no matter what.
            Christianity knows nothing of this.  St. Paul declared that “nothing is unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14), and that “nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for then it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer”.  To deny this in the Church, he says, is one of the “doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1-5).  Our fasting rules are not food laws.
            What then is the point of them?  The rules and abstinence have less to do with the stomach and more to do with the heart.  God originally made us as spirit, soul, and body, with these three hierarchically ordered:  our bodies submitted to our souls and our souls submitted to the spirit.  Now everything is topsy-turvy and inverted:  our bodily appetites rule over us, with our souls and personalities following obediently these bodily desires.  The spiritual life comes a distant third.  Fasting is meant to overturn all this, and restore us to proper balance.  By fasting from good things such as meat, fish, dairy, and wine, we train our appetites to submit.  Have you ever seen a dog with a treat balanced on its nose?  The dog longs for the treat, but has been trained by its master not to eat the treat until allowed.  Lent disciplines us to imitate the obedience of the well-trained dog, and not to eat the treat of more luxurious cuisine until allowed at Pascha.    Lent says to our imperious desires, “You’re not the boss of me—the Lord is”, and demands that it submit to the spiritual life. 
            The fasting rules fulfill another function—that of binding us together as one family.  If simple ascetic abstinence were the sole function of Lent, then rules would not be necessary.  Each person could decide for himself “what to give up for Lent” and proceed with his own individual programme of disciplining the desires.  But Christianity is not a philosophy but a family.  Nothing in it is individual and isolated.  We do not baptize ourselves when we become Christians, but receive baptism at the hands of another.  We do not take bread and wine at home alone, but come to the Eucharistic assembly along with our fellows to receive it from the priest.  The New Testament epistles were mostly not written to individuals, but to churches, and the prayer the Lord taught us was not the “My Father”, but the “Our Father”.  Christianity is relentlessly corporate, and it binds us together as a single body, a united family.  That is why the Church gives a single set of rules for everyone to follow.  If one gave up meat, while another gave up chocolate and a third gave up coffee, all might benefit from their asceticism, but corporate meals would become impossible.  So the Church bids us become one, and to eat together, sharing not only the same Eucharistic Chalice, but also the same fellowship table.  The food on that table must be allowed by everyone who approaches it—hence the single set of fasting rules for all.
            Finally, the most important thing about the Lenten fasting cuisine is that it helps soften our heart and promote love.  An old book once proclaimed, “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche”, and a wise woman I know once built on that and further proclaimed, “Real Christians Don’t Eat Each Other”.   It is tempting to be cannibalistic.  As St. Paul once warned his Galatian converts, “If you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15).  It is too easy to speak words which wound, and to destroy another by gossip, criticism, and insult.  As Solomon once taught, life and death are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21), and we often use that power for death and not for life.  St. James warned us that the tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  Man stands at the top of the food chain, and has tamed every other species—lions, and tigers and bears.  But oh my!—no one can tame the tongue.  If one has tamed the tongue, one has arrived, and is mature and perfect man (James 3:1-12).
            Lent bids us tame the tongue and to love silence.  Some people when they arise in the morning turn on the computer or the television or the radio, and leave it on all day.  Most of us do the same with the tongue—when we rise, we turn on the tongue, and leave it on.  Lent bids us turn off the tongue, and only turn it on when we need to use it—and then turn it off again.  It’s hard work, just as fasting is hard work.  But only by doing this can we achieve spiritual maturity. 
            Lenten cuisine is ultimately not about food, like an Orthodox version of Jenny Craig.  It is about spiritual maturity, and drawing near to Christ and to each other.  It will be over soon enough, as Pascha draws ever closer.  All the more reason to use it while we have the chance.